Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Research shows that sleep is among the most critical factors for peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function and mood regulation – but the speed and information overload of today’s pace of life can challenge sleep quality, resulting in a decline in health and cognitive function.
Our best intentions to catch up on a sleep debt can lead to inconsistent patterns of sleep. This is a slippery slope. Unfortunately, an hour less tonight does not equal an extra hour tomorrow.
According to cognitive psychologist and best-selling author Daniel J. Levitin, you cannot make up for lost sleep. Levitin’s work explores recent advances in brain science and how leaders in the information age excel. In his bookThe Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, he explains the importance of sleep and the cost of sleep deprivation.
The belief that people can adapt to chronic sleep loss without a negative influence on brain function is no longer supported. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared sleep deprivation a public health epidemic in 2013.
Not all sleep is equal. Recovery or catch-up sleep is characterized by abnormal brain waves as the brain attempts to resynchronize with the body’s circadian rhythm. Even a mild sleep reduction or change in sleep routine can produce detrimental effects on cognitive performance for many days afterward.
Following these tips will help improve sleep quality and support brain function.
There is great individual variance in sleep cycles. Some are able to fall asleep as their head hits the pillow; others may take an hour. Both are considered within the normal range. What is most important is to understand your specific sleep requirements and lock in this pattern. General guidelines suggest that children require 10 to 12 hours, teenagers 8.5 to 9 hours and adults six to 10 hours.
Deeper restorative sleep typically occurs during the first two hours and the last 90 minutes of sleep. If the important 90-minute window of deeper REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is either interrupted or never occurs, sleep deprivation leads to memory loss.
Sleep habits that lead to normal, quality nighttime sleep and full daytime alertness, referred to as sleep hygiene, are supported by a consistent routine. Maintain a regular wake-and-sleep pattern seven days a week.
Yes, your posture is important even when you sleep. Lying on your back or side allows your head, neck and spine to relax into their natural alignment. Stomach sleeping places stress on your spine and is discouraged for back- and neck-pain suffers. Try placing a pillow under your knees when lying on your back. This will take pressure off your lower back. Back sleeping may lead to snoring and poor sleep quality for your partner. If so, roll onto your side and position your head, neck and shoulders in line with your spine.
Pillow selection can be challenging. The wrong pillow may worsen headaches, neck pain, shoulder and arm numbness and/or discomfort.
Back sleepers need thinner pillows, so their head is not thrown too far forward. And there’s some benefit from the use of cervical pillows with extra loft in the bottom third of the pillow to cradle the neck. Side sleepers need a firmer pillow to fill in the distance between the ear and outside shoulder. Final selection will be influenced by your body size, shape and sleep habits. Most pillows wear out in a couple of years and should be regularly replaced.
Mattresses should be comfortably supportive. You want a mattress to be flexible enough to adapt to your body’s shape while providing firm support for your spine. Replace your mattress every eight to 12 years.
Strategies for better sleep
- Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol too close to bedtime: While alcohol is well known to speed the onset of sleep, it disrupts sleep in the second half as the body begins to metabolize the alcohol, causing arousal.
- Exercise can promote good sleep: Keep vigorous exercise to the morning or late afternoon. A relaxing exercise, such as yoga, can be done before bed to help initiate a restful night’s sleep.
- Eating can be disruptive right before sleep: Stay away from large meals close to bedtime.
- Ensure adequate exposure to natural light: This is particularly important for older people who may not venture outside as frequently. Light exposure on waking helps maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
- Establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine: Try to avoid emotionally charged conversations and activities before bed.
- Associate your bed with sleep: It’s not a good idea to use your bed to watch TV, surf the web, or read.